"The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down." A. Whitney Brown.

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San Juan Archipelago, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 650, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

12 September 2016

❖ MOSQUITO FLEET MONDAY ❖ the VIRGINIA V, Our Sole Surviving Steam Mosquito

Built by Matt Anderson at Maplewood, Kitsap Peninsula, WA.
Seen here on her first trip to Seattle, summer 1922.
From a litho postcard from the Clinton H. Betz ship collection
Archives of the S.P.H.S.©
"1922 was a year of global turmoil and transition. The 'war of all wars' was over and the Jazz Age kicked up its heels. The roaring 20s were building up steam. Winds of change swept waves of speak-easies, flappers, rumrunners, bootleggers, and gangsters across the land.
      The waters were quiet on Puget Sound for Campfire Girls' Postmistress, Ellen Bringloe, as she rowed from Camp Sealth to Maplewood wharf with a bottle of Lisabuela creek water. 
      At six AM sharp, Ellen smacked her be-ribboned bottle of 'Prohibition champagne' against the prow of the newest 'Mosquito Fleet' steamer, christening her VIRGINIA V. The first VIRGINIA was the S.S. VIRGINIA MERRILL (1908), named after the daughter of a local logging baron.
      Captain Nels G. Christensen, of the West Pass Transportation Co, first saw VIRGINIA V in his mind's eye. He described her to Mathew Anderson, master shipwright, and with a handshake, and roughly $30,000 the project was begun. In nine months, Anderson carved VIRGINIA V out of first growth Douglas fir––without the aid of a blueprint. She unfolded upon his dry dock, gaining her unique shape day by day. With her traditional nautical lines and raked funnel, VIRGINIA V is a classic wooden-hulled steamship. 
      116-ft x 24-ft  with a 7-ft draft, she can carry a couple of hundred passengers and haul 100 tons of freight at a steady and comfortable 13-knots. Her 400-HP, triple-expansion, oil-fired steam engine formerly powered the VIRGINIA IV.
      On 11 June, VIRGINIA V went to work. She joined scores of needle-nosed steamers that darted about the islands, harbors, and bays of Puget Sound providing transportation between town and country, farm and city. The steamer serviced 13 landings along both sides of Vashon Island's Colvos passage, connecting those communities with Seattle and Tacoma.
      Whenever VIRGINIA V arrived at a landing, it was a social event. Mail was picked up and delivered. Gossip was exchanged. Young ladies kept an averted eye open for any young men looking their way. Groceries were unloaded. Livestock and produce were boarded. Then the lines were cast off, the whistle would ring out and the engine would begin slowly and rhythmically building up to a crescendo of syncopated patter. The sonorous sounds of VIRGINIA's steam whistle echoing down Colvos Passage would punctuate her comings and goings.
      Business was so brisk that eventually two round trips daily were established. On Sundays, she escorted Campfire Girls back and forth between Seattle and Camp Sealth on Vashon Island. The girls adopted the vessel and affectionately called her "VIRGINIA VEE." She traveled 126 miles a day, six days a week, 445,900 miles a year. Everything flowed smoothly until the vicious and brutal storm of 1934 nearly destroyed her.
      What in the world VIRGINIA 's lee side was doing facing he Olallala wharf that Sunday in October is anyone's guess. Hurricane-force winds were racing down the Sound. 70-mile-an-hour winds whipped up 10-ft swells. The full force of the freak storm struck the vessel broadside, hurled her over, crashing her through pilings. Pinned to the dock by broken timbers, wind and wave beat the helpless vessel mercilessly. The 30 passengers and crew miraculously escaped injury by leaping to the dock and safety. 
      VIRGINIA V's stout hull withstood the onslaught, but her upperworks were stove-in. The damage estimate was $11,000 and $11,000 in 1934, at the depth of the Great Depression was a small fortune. Her owners decided to rebuild. The investment didn't pay off. Auto-passenger ferries were making serious inroads in Puget Sound maritime traffic. Trucks carried the freight, cars the passengers, and both were transported across the Sound on ferries. The Coast Guard was demanding more and more of a vessel to pass inspection and workers were demanding more and more in wages. After 16 years and eight million passengers, VIRGINIA V was retired from regular service in 1938, her fate uncertain.
      In 1940, the Japanese were island hopping across the Pacific and there was considerable fear that they would island hop across the Aleutians, down the Inside Passage, and into Puget Sound. Japanese subs were sinking unarmed merchant vessels along Washington's coast. They attacked a lighthouse on Vancouver Island and shelled the Harbor Defenses at the mouth of the Columbia River. There were rumors that a Japanese battle fleet was sighted off the California coast, and was heading toward the naval shipyard at Bremerton. The government enlisted every boat that would float into the war effort. The US Army enlisted VIRGINIA V in their harbor defense. She transport troops and supplies between Seattle and seacoast forts.
      In 1942, although Japanese subs were prowling the sea-lanes off the WA coast, Capt V.G. Christensen, son of the original owner, brought the VIRGINIA V from Puget Sound to the Columbia River. He hoped to find permanent employment for the craft as a passenger vessel between Portland and Astoria. His last-ditch effort was an era too late. A ribbon of highway stretched across the land and sleek, fast autos raced down them. The red ink flowed. The crew 'plastered the boat' (sued for wages,) and a deputy Marshall seized the vessel in lieu of unpaid bills. VIRGINIA V was to be sold to the highest bidder at a public auction. 
      VIRGINIA presented a forlorn and lonely picture as she waited to be hauled up on the auction block. Nearly every other 'Mosquito Fleet' steamer had met the scrapper's torch. Her wooden hull was worthless, but her brass fittings and steel boiler were worth their weight in gold during the wartime metal scarcity."
Above excerpt from The Washington Fleet. An O/P publication in memory of Capt. H. Ward Henshaw (1883-1958) by Ron and Kristine Henshaw for the Washington Centennial in 1989. Thank you Henshaws.

A chart presented with a ticket to the 
50th celebration of S.S. VIRGINIA V 
in 1972.
Click to enlarge.

1922-1938: The VIRGINIA V made a round trip a day through the Passage, carrying freight and passengers between Tacoma and Seattle. 
1939-1940: She ran during the summer months only. Her working days are honored by Roland Carey in Isle of the Sea Breezers. Alderbrook Publishing Co., Seattle. 1976.
The below excerpt from Workboats by Archie Satterfield and Walt Crowley. 
Sasquatch Books. 1992.
      "New owners brought her back to Puget Sound and began the West Pass run again. But after the war, business declined, and like the entire Mosquito Fleet, the VIRGINIA V was relegated to the transportation backwaters when the State of Washington decided in 1950 to invest in its own ferry fleet as an extension of the State highway system. She was used almost exclusively for excursions during the next three decades.
      During this time, she went through a succession of owners until the VIRGINIA V Foundation, formed in 1976, bought her in 1979 with state and federal grants and matching funds from supporters.
      Today the boat continues to be chartered to private parties, carrying up to 328 passengers. She is operated in much the same manner as she was during her heyday on the Sound because grandfather clauses waive many Coast Guard regulations that apply to new boats––provided the VIRGINIA V is in good working condition."


  1. Don't forget the Carlisle II(1917), still taking workers to PSNS in Bremerton/Port Orchard. Good article!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I believe we have a photo of the Carlisle II under construction, will look for a story to highlight her, too. Stop by again.


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